Obstructed View

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Kirsten Nelson

Bought the cheap tickets for a concert and your view is of a pillar? You’re not going to like the sound, either, and not just because of acoustic problems. That disapproval is more deeply ingrained than mere resentment of those in the front row. It’s about the information our mind weighs when making a judgment.

I’m of average height (some might argue that I am below average height), but as a general rule, the tallest person in the room always seems to find me in a crowd and stand directly in front of me. My theory is that it’s about air space. The tall person sees all that extra real estate above my head and moves in, obstructing my view of the concert, and changing my experience. But these circumstances have proven good grounds for experimentation over the years. When I crane my neck to see the musicians, I am instantly more engaged in the music. Even if it’s a mediocre act, seeing the passion of the players is enough to make it evocative on some level.

I’ve never had a chance to publish my advanced scientific findings, but that generously cleared the way for a psychologist who also happens to be an award-winning pianist to do her research. Chia-Jung Tsay was a child prodigy musician who made her debut at Carnegie Hall while still a teenager. More recently, she’s also proven her own theory of how sight and sound inform our opinion of musical prowess.

Noticing that she fared better in competitions that required video entries or live performance rather than those that relied merely on audio recordings, she conducted research to investigate whether subjects could accurately predict winners based on audio, video, or audio combined with video information.

As it turns out, the visual information was most critical. In findings that were published this summer in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, test subjects were best able to guess which musician won a competition when shown video only, with no sound.

We can cultivate our audiophile talents all we want, but as it turns out, humans will formulate an opinion based more heavily on the emotional cues we can see. If a musician exhibits passion and creativity in their performance, Tsay suggests, then we are better convinced of their merits.

You might want to keep this in mind at your next loudspeaker demo. Throw some video into the mix and let the audience see the artist play. Don’t just throw a still image up there, either. Make sure audio syncs with video and you may be able to sway opinions in your favor. And check those sight lines to make sure your audience can see every flicker of emotion on stage.

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